Let us begin with a poem:
Suppose the Kingdom came one breezy day
Like dandelion fluff amidst the hay,
A quiet and familiar seed---
Too commonplace for us to heed.
Suppose that while we passed our time away
In sleep, the Kingdom came one fleecy day
As unobtrusive as the sap---
Too mild to rouse us from our nap.
Do you suppose that then we'd ever find
A single clue that we'd been left behind?
If we are interested in whether something is real, this seems like an inauspicious beginning. Poetry is generally thought to be about imagination, not reality. But my assumption is that the symbols and metaphors in significant poetry have references in the real world – things, and events, or processes that may be difficult to talk about in ordinary language, but which are nevertheless real. So my questions are these: is there a real process in the real world that could meaningfully be called “The Kingdom of Heaven”? And could we get left behind for real?
To discuss this with any clarity we probably need a definition. What do I mean by the “Kingdom of Heaven?” This: The “Kingdom of Heaven” is the community of people who attempt to put the rule of love at the center of their existence. If there are people who do this, then the Kingdom of Heaven is real. It might also be called “The Reign of Love.” Which calls for another definition. What do I mean by “love?” To love is to actively will the well-being of the self and others. This is why the Reign of Love is described as “within us,” or “amongst us.” It is both within our hearts and between us – as an active process.
I believe that “The Reign of Love” (as it might be translated today) was the central teaching of Jesus. As he describes it, it has nothing to do with what happens after we die, nor even whether there is a continuation of our consciousness after death. I don't assume that some continuation does not take place, but that is irrelevant to our questions here. The Reign of Love is here and now.
Although the Kingdom remains overwhelmed by what Jesus called “principalities” it did arrive and is a present reality in the world. If we attempt to put the Reign of Love in the center of our existence, we are saved from an absurd and meaningless existence, though we may still be subjected to serious suffering. And our lives become informed and invigorated by a reality that transcends our individual existence.
This transcendence has two dimensions. First we are linked into a larger community of people. Second, we become vehicles for the telos of the universe. Although the Reign of Love is real, it corresponds to no specific institution. Or, it might be better said that any given institution my frustrate or facilitate the Reign of Love in a variety of ways.